French Open preview (men)
Time for the French Open – the second of the four major’s and the premier clay event on the calendar!
The main narrative for the men centres on the rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal which has almost superseded the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Both are chasing history in their own respect. Djokovic has never made the final in Roland Garros, let alone win it. But if he does, he will complete the set (of all four major trophies) and join Federer and Nadal in winning a Career Slam. But Djokovic has the chance to do something neither of them have achieved, something extra special, something that hasn’t been done since 1969 and that is to win all four Slams in a row. In fact, only two players in history have won the ‘Grand Slam’ – Rod Laver (twice) and Don Budge.
The other sub-plot in this narrative is Rafael Nadal. He equalled Bjorn Borg by winning a sixth French Open title last year. This year, if he defends his crown, he’ll jump to outright first and win a record-breaking seventh crown. Nadal’s win-loss record on the clay of Paris is inconceivable, he has won 45 times and lost just once (R4 in 2009). And his conqueror on that occasion, Robin Soderling, has been suffering from mononucleosis which has kept him absent for nine months.
Djokovic is coming off the back of an amazing 2011 where his win-loss record finished at 70-6, one of the best on record. Djokovic and Nadal have contested the last three majors in a row, with Djokovic the victor on each occasion.
Crucial to choosing a favourite is the form in the lead-up clay events. Nadal will take a psychological edge after beating Djokovic in the finals of both Monte Carlo and Rome. He also won the event in Barcelona. His only blip was a loss to compatriot Fernando Verdasco on the controversial blue clay of Madrid, an event ultimately won by Roger Federer.
By winning Rome last week, Nadal displaced Federer as world no.2. This ensured Nadal and Djokovic would be on separate halves of the draw. On Friday, Federer was drawn on Djokovic’s half, setting a potential repeat of last year’s semi-final where Federer upset Djokovic to make the final. Déjà vu, anybody?
Here’s a stat: 27 of the last 28 Majors have been shared between just three players – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Ok, so we’ve heard enough about Nole and Rafa, what about the rest? Roger Federer has been very consistent and perhaps the best player form-wise since last year’s US Open, but he hasn’t won a major since the 2010 Australian Open – almost two and half years ago. He’s now 30 and I feel like he won’t add to his 16 Majors. He definitely can, but if he does it might just be only one more. The hierarchy of Nadal and Djokovic looks hard to topple for the foreseeable future.
The best of the rest involves two similar players in anatomy and playing style – the lanky duo of Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych. Both are former semi-finalists in Paris and in fact del Potro led Federer two-sets-to-one before losing in five sets in 2009. I expect Berdych to make it further than del Potro this year, but only because del Potro has been handed a really difficult draw. The two could potentially meet in a mouth-watering Round of 16 clash.
David Ferrer is the ‘energizer bunny’ of the circuit. He doesn’t give you an inch and is so consistent. It usually takes a real big name to beat him, especially on clay. He won’t win the title but almost certainly will be there in the second week.
As for Andy Murray, who still hasn’t won a major, I don’t feel he can really threaten this time round. He started the year off very well under new coach Ivan Lendl but his season has waned, especially in the recent clay events. That said, he is extremely impressive in Majors, having made at least the semis of the last 5 Slams.
For the Aussies, there are only three men. In his last year as a teenager, Bernard Tomic is seeded for the first time in a Grand Slam. Even though he’s reached a career high ranking of 28, he’s on his least favoured surface is expected to lose to Murray in R3. Lleyton Hewitt, 31, made a swifter than expected recovery from a foot injury and enters as a reciprocal wildcard under an agreement between the French, US and Australian governing associations. The last ten times he has competed, he made at least the third round but never past the quarter-finals, so he’s very consistent but never really threatened at Roland Garros. But that run might end as he is due to meet Djokovic in R2. Matthew Ebden is the third Aussie and he’s making his first main draw appearance in a Grand Slam outside of Australia.
Final tip: Nadal to win the final in four sets and deny Djokovic a historic Grand Slam. If Djokovic can force it into a fifth set, I give him every chance of going on to win because it means he’s matching Nadal in match play and has the fitness level to challenge the King of Clay over 5.
Notable absentees include: Robin Soderling, Gael Monfils, Kei Nishikori, Mardy Fish
Pick of the matches (remember, these are subject to players reaching this stage of the tournament)
Semi-finals: Djokovic v Federer
Quarter-finals: Murray v Ferrer, Federer v Berdych
Fourth round: Berdych v del Potro, Ferrer v Isner, Wawrinka v Tsonga, Tipsarevic v Almagro
Third round: Tomic v Murray, Cilic v del Potro, Gasquet v Dolgopolov, Raonic v Monaco, Wawrinka v Simon, Djokovic v Melzer
Second round: Hewitt v Djokovic, Federer v Nalbandian, Verdasco v Muller, del Potro v Ferrero, Baghdatis v Almagro
First round: Blake v Youzhny, Roddick v Mahut, Harrison v Simon, Davydenko v Seppi